How Better PLC Programming Can Improve Industrial Safety


In the last 40 years, industrial safety has come a long way.

Today, most businesses routinely include industrial safety in both their manufacturing processes and company culture. Gradual improvements in communication and engagement have also helped reduce accident levels across the board. However, despite all this progress, many key areas remain in which further improvement is absolutely necessary.

Surprisingly, the greatest room for improvement can be found within the spheres of process engineering and industrial control systems.

A recent study by The French Bureau for Analysis of Industrial Risks and Pollutions (ARIA) found that programming errors accounted for 20% of the root causes of processing accidents. The toll also extends beyond safety to economic impact as well, with studies from other groups finding that “process industries lose 5% of their output due to unscheduled downtime”. 20% of industrial processing accidents are caused by bad PLC code.

Why Current Industrial Safety Is Still Lagging Behind

For process engineers and automated control systems to integrate fully into a culture of safety, it helps to understand just how industrial automation arrived at this point. (Read about additional challenges caused by the disconnect between process and control engineering in our previous article)

1. PLCs, Industrial Control Systems, and the “Machine”:

First, much of modern industrial safety culture centers around task performance and proper training for said tasks. Even though most safety programs focus on repetitive labor, movement of materials and operator training to eliminate or reduce accidents, PLCs and industrial control systems themselves are often overlooked as a potential source because they’re considered part of the machine, rather than a cause for danger.

2. Process Interpretations and Specifications:

Many times the interpretation of process specifications is left to the individual programming the components. As “part of the machine”, the goal is narrowly defined as the need to get the PLC programmed and the machine operating. Misinterpretation of specifications, lack of standards, or misunderstanding how to program safety considerations into the controller itself can be costly.

3. Habit and Tradition:

The hardest part of an organization to change is the culture. Within process industries, methods traditionally used to develop and program have changed little in the last forty years. This methodology and the habitual and traditional tendency to maintain it “as is” is an obstacle to building in safety at the control level.

3 Steps To Safer Industrial Control Systems

The above factors have led to a disconnect between control system programming and safety. And while all processes continue to evolve over time, what is needed is more of a revolution and the integration of safety at the design and programming stages of a control system. Designing functional safety into the controller is both safer and more cost-effective when done on the front end of the process rather than as an add-on after an accident has occurred.

1. Methodology:

Professional organizations have begun to develop protocols to help process industries develop their own guidelines for programmable logic controllers using standardized methods. Specifying the precise methodology, range, and steps required for safety considerations to be built into the programming at the front end in a way that addresses industry-specific needs for that process.

2. Getting Process Proactive:

Process industries have long incorporated safety programs that rely on people, training, and vigilance throughout their organizations. But there is no need for process engineers to wait for these initiatives to come to them. They can be proactive in an effort to build safer, more precise systems. Accurate programming, with safety considerations designed into the system at the outset, provides an opportunity for engineers to take control of the initiative instead of leading from behind.

3. Industry 4.0 Peer Pressure:

Other industries have already revolutionized the way products are produced. Virtual part lists, 3D scanning and imaging, and other tools have allowed these industries to make huge leaps forward competitively, as well as in designing safer products and processes. When considering how to update and improve the development and programming of automated control systems, engineers can use the success of these peer groups to improve their own discipline and communication.

Better PLC Programming Is the Solution

Changing how control systems are developed and programmed is difficult, especially in our slow-to-change industry. Developing more precise methodology will help eliminate manual errors and interpretational differences through adherence to best practices and defined quality goals. But process engineers must also engage proactively as leaders to include these changes at the outset of the process. And finally, comparing the success of process change within other industries can help process engineers improve their own methods and systems.

Our platform, WonderLogix, gives both skilled engineers and those who know absolutely nothing about coding the ability to maintain accurate, scalable PLC code that eliminates human error from the equation and increases industrial safety.

Learn more about how WonderLogix can save you time and money, as well as protect your industrial control systems.

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